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District Official Says Some School Staff Ignore Mandated Meetings

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For an observer of special education, the District of Columbia system is in a class by itself, unfortunately. It suffers from a "perfect storm" of education issues: not enough programs for students with disabilities, some demoralized staff, and a class-action lawsuit on behalf of underserved students looming over everything. The district spends millions of dollars a year on out-of-district placements for students with disabilities and is struggling to bring that figure down.

Now, Richard Nyankori, the acting deputy chancellor for special education, has said what a lot of people already believe to be true: some staff members aren't paying attention to the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Act because they just don't care:

Richard Nyankori, acting deputy chancellor for special education, said the backlog of D.C. children awaiting special education services is lengthy in part because school staff don't show up for meetings, leaving cases unresolved and parents in the lurch.

"Sometimes it is willful on the part of some staff not to make it to meetings," Nyankori said under questioning from U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman.

Friedman called the hearing to quiz officials about the District's lack of progress in complying with a 2006 consent decree that settled a class action brought by parents of children with learning problems. The District's public and public charter schools have nearly 11,000 special education students. About 20 percent attend private schools, at a cost to taxpayers of about $200 million, because D.C. cannot meet their needs.

I had an opportunity to interview Nyankori for an article I wrote on this consent decree. Nyankori spoke at length about a new focus on responsiveness to parent requests for due process hearings; I remember thinking at the time that parents in Washington D.C. are so used to being ignored that it seems like the first thing that needs to be done is to build some level of trust in the process.

Still, as he told me, "“Clearing the backlog is not the same as educational reform,” said Mr. Nyankori. “The core of the problem is creating a stronger general education system.”

It's fair to note that not everyone agrees with Nyankori's assessment of the situation. Candi Peterson, a school social worker and a teacher union official, calls the complaint about staff no-shows a "lie." Peterson has her own blog, where she writes about District of Columbia school issues. You can find it here.

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I am somewhat persuaded by Peterson's blog, although my experience leads me to suspect that the truth is somewhere in between (and a commenter did get around to what I had expected when I saw the first article on this topic--placing blame on parents for not showing). Nonetheless Nyankori's statement is irresponsible. If staff no shows are a problem--then it is his (or the DC Public Schools') problem. If he wants to talk about it to the press, it should be in terms that quantify the problem and specify a strategy for combatting the problem and show some understanding of underlying causes.

While it is true that clearing the backlog is not educational reform, it may require educational reform and certainly ought not be inconsistent with it. Building a stronger general ed program with the ability to detect problems early and respond to them ought to be working hand in hand with efforts to respond to the backlog.

To stand in court on behalf of the system and talk about the behavior of employees as if they come from somewhere else is akin to going into court with suit jacket and tie, ignoring that one's pants are down around their ankles.

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